Take a look at six women in STEM who transformed their fields through their work — from pioneering ecology to viral immunology research.
As nations around the globe grapple with complex scientific problems, including the COVID-19 pandemic, women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) continue to shape our understanding of the world and make pivotal discoveries that will inform life for generations to come.
A 2019 study suggests that, although career opportunities for women in STEM fields are on the rise, ninety-one percent say that gender discrimination continues to be an obstacle. Another report reveals that eighty-two percent of women in STEM have had their contributions ignored at work.
Earlier this year, Katherine Johnson, the American mathematician who made calculations for NASA on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, and one of the women who inspired the film Hidden Figures, passed away. Her death reminded us of both the groundbreaking work of women in STEM fields and the many ways in which they’ve been overlooked and under-recognized.
Here’s a look at six women in STEM who, like Johnson, transformed their fields through their work.
1. Rachel Carson (1907-1964)
Today, this marine biologist and nature writer is best remembered for her indelible contributions to the environmental movement. Beginning her career at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she later gained a following as an author. Carson is still known not only for her scientific vision, but also her lyrical writing.
Her most famous book, Silent Spring (1962), warned of the dangers of chemical pesticides — such as DDT and heptachlor — on the natural world, the animal kingdom, and human health, awakening the global public to the consequences of pollution on the environment. Even when faced with threats from chemical companies, she persisted, once writing to a friend, “There would be no future peace for me if I kept silent.”
In 1963, she testified before Congress on the use of pesticides. By then she was already sick with breast cancer, although few people knew.
Carson’s courage ultimately inspired a generation of world citizens to take up the cause and laid the foundation for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. However, she didn’t live to see the ban of DDT across the country, nor did she see the passing of The Clean Water or Endangered Species Acts. She died just two years after the publication of Silent Spring.
Still, Carson left behind an enduring legacy that continues to influence the natural sciences today as we face environmental crises. “Man is a part of nature,” she wrote, “and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
2. Jane C. Wright (1919-2013)
Along with her father, Dr. Louis Wright, the director of the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem Hospital, this surgeon and cancer researcher was responsible for groundbreaking research on chemotherapy drugs, including methotrexate. She provided the first evidence that the drug could be effective against solid tumors.
She later succeeded her father as the director of the Foundation and would become the Director of Cancer Research at the New York University Medical Center, where she continued her research on anticancer drugs. It was during this time when she determined that primary tissue culture could be used for drug testing, an important step in the development of personalized medicine.
In the 1960s, Wright developed a non-surgical method of delivering anticancer drugs to inaccessible tumors within the body. Later, in 1971, she became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society. Wright was also the only woman founder of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Throughout her forty-year career, she helped revolutionize cancer treatment and transformed chemotherapy from a “last resort” measure into an accessible treatment. As the American physician James F. Holland once put it, “She was a woman in a man’s world, and gently set about to change it.”
3. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
While working on DNA at King’s College, Franklin was frustrated, at times, by sexism in the industry. For instance, women were not allowed to have lunch in the common room with men. She ultimately left to lead a research group at Birkbeck College, where she made significant strides in the study of viruses.
“Photo 51,” Franklin’s famous work on DNA and taken by the Ph.D. student Raymond Gosling, was shared with Watson and Crick without her knowledge. Tragically, she passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of thirty-seven before the Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery (she was not included in the prize). Franklin continued to work avidly up until a few weeks before her passing.
“She would have […] been amazed at the idea she has become a feminist icon,” Franklin’s sister Jenifer Glynn would later recall on the 100th anniversary of her birth. “She was aware that it was harder for women, but wasn’t trying to blaze a trail. Although, nothing would have pleased her more than the fact that perhaps it encourages girls into science.”
4. Jane Goodall (1934-present)
In the summer of 1960, this British primatologist embarked on a journey to Gombe Stream National Park. Just twenty-six years old at the time, she went on to make stunning discoveries about the social lives of chimpanzees — and their similarities to humans.
She went to Gombe with her mother, setting up an army tent and exploring the rainforest until, after two months, one chimpanzee, whom she named David Greybeard, began to trust her. Over time, he started to visit her camp, bringing others with him as well.
Goodall’s choice to name the chimps was unusual at the time, when most researchers preferred numbers. Over time, as she observed the animals, she learned that they expressed affection through kisses, experienced a range of emotions, followed an omnivorous diet, and had distinct personalities. What’s more, and, importantly, chimps could make and use tools from twigs.
The latter discovery was a bombshell that rocked the scientific community. Humans were previously thought to be unique in our ability to make tools. In the 1980s, Goodall transitioned from the role of field scientist to one of activism, devoting her life to the conservation of wild habitats and the welfare of animals in captivity.
In the U.S., she was instrumental in the fight against the use of chimpanzees in medical research. Following the efforts of herself and other animal advocates, the 300-360 chimps owned by the National Institutes of Health were retired to sanctuaries. There they could live out their lives with dignity and respect.
The Jane Goodall Institute continues to work on behalf of humankind’s closest living relatives by working against deforestation and the displacement and exploitation of wildlife. The latter is an issue that’s been brought into sharper focus amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. “We are not separated from the rest of the animal kingdom,” she told The New York Times earlier this year. “We’re part of it.”
5. Mae Jemison (1956-present)
In 1992, inspired by the work of Sally Ride and a lifelong passion for science, this engineer, doctor, and NASA astronaut made history as the first woman of color to travel to space. Over the course of eight days, she and her team orbited the Earth 127 times aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
As a mission specialist, she worked on two bone cell research experiments, part of a series of forty-four life science and materials investigations conducted during mission STS-47. A longtime Star Trek fan, she would begin her shifts with the salute “hailing frequencies open,” a line made famous by the character Lieutenant Uhura.
After leaving NASA in 1993, she went on to form the technology consulting firm The Jemison Group. More recently, she led the 100 Year Starship, a grant project devoted to fostering research that will allow for human space travel to another star within the next century. As the founder of the non-profit the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, she has been instrumental in promoting science literacy, innovation, and sustainability among students. She has also continued to speak out about the importance of equality in STEM fields.
Looking back on her time in space, Jemison later remembered that the first thing she saw from the flight deck was the city of Chicago, where she grew up. “It was such a significant moment because, since I was a little girl, I had always assumed I would go into space,” she wrote in 2003.
“When I grew up in the 1960s, the only American astronauts were men. Looking out the window of that space shuttle, I thought if that little girl growing up in Chicago could see her older self now, she would have a huge grin on her face.”
6. Kizzmekia Corbett (1986-present)
This thirty-four-year-old viral immunologist at the National Institutes of Health made headlines in recent months while leading her team of scientists in the search for a vaccine for the novel coronavirus 2019. Always a keen student and researcher, she spent decades preparing for this role. In fact, she first started work at the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center twelve years ago as an undergraduate. When Dr. Barney Graham asked her about her dreams and aspirations at the time, she responded, “I want your job.”
Since then, she’s devoted more than six years to studying other coronaviruses. And, in the wake of SARS and MERS, she knew another outbreak was possible. Dr. Corbett and her team have identified and studied, in detail, a particular “spike protein” that protrudes from the surfaces of coronaviruses and binds to human cells, working tirelessly together toward the development of a vaccine. These days, she works seven days a week and gets three or four hours of sleep a night.
Today, Graham, who saw her talent from the start, is Corbett’s boss, and she credits him with helping to set everything in motion. Beyond the data and hard work, Corbett has also been an inspirational public figure, encouraging the American people to be more empathetic and considerate during the crisis. “I would say that my role as a scientist is really about my passion and purpose for the world and for giving back to the world,” she said in an interview with Black Enterprise earlier this year.
Cover image via Everett Collection/Shutterstock.
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